As Bangladesh prepares for the national election on December 30, the contrast between its two principal political parties could not be more stark.
Until just about a month ago, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League was lording it over the country’s political field, entrenched in power and widely expected to retain it without much effort. Its primary rival, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party was gasping for survival. In February, the party’s chief, former Prime Minister Khaleda Zia, was jailed for five years for corruption (the sentence was later doubled). Thousands of its workers were either in prison or underground. When Zia’s son and heir apparent, Tarique Rahman, exiled in London, was sentenced to life last month for his alleged role in a 2004 assassination attempt on Hasina, pundits started writing the BNP’s obituaries.
It’s different now. The BNP has got new life and is likely to give the ruling party a run for its money. The reason: its alliance with a group of leftist parties. Jatyio Oikya Front, or the National Unity Front, forged in mid-October, with secular icon Kamal Hossain at the helm. Hossain, 82, a globally recognised jurist and human rights defender, served in the country’s first ministry under Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Hasina’s father. More importantly, Hossain is credited with drafting Bangladesh’s first constitution after independence in 1971.
Afsan Chowdhury, a political columnist, noted that Hossain has filled the void of the BNP’s guardian created by Zia’s incarceration. “Tarique was no option since he cannot come back to the country after his conviction,” he said. “So with an alliance with Kamal, BNP has surely got formidable leadership.”
The alliance has already put forward an 11-point agenda that promises, among other reforms, to strengthen the checks and balances on power, decentralise administration, form a commission to fill important positions, and make the judiciary fully independent.
Separately, it came out with a list of seven demands. Crucially, it asked for the election to be held under a nonpartisan administration after dissolving the parliament and the Election Commission to be recast. The government this month invited the Oikya Front for a much-hyped meeting to discuss its demands thought it didn’t agree to any. Nevertheless, the alliance said it would contest the election.
But will this “odd mix” of an alliance, as political commentator Zia Hassan described it, be able to withstand the onslaught of the Awami League come election day? Hassan feared that the ruling party may have devised a plan to rig the election. “They have just drafted a charter to hurriedly introduce electronic voting machines at many polling centers which many believe will be used to engineer votes for the ruling party,” he said.
Still, Hassan observed, the Oikya Front has caught “the nation’s attention”, and if it can combine the BNP’s popular support with Hossain’s legitimacy among middle and elite classes, it will be “a force that is much greater than sum of its individual parts”.
Anti-incumbency in play
The opposition alliance will be seeking to tap into the anti-incumbency sentiment against the Awami League. The party has ruled for 10 years, ousting the BNP from power in 2008 and retaining it when nearly the entire opposition boycotted the 2014 election.
Shah Ali Farhad, a lawyer and researcher in Dhaka, said incumbency is “a huge burden” and people have a “habit of changing their menus once in a while”.
However, Hasina’s pitch that continuity in government is essential to deliver development may resonate with voters, Farhad argued, “given Bangladesh has traditionally seen breaks and even abandonment of development projects with changes in government”.
Hasina’s rule has brought relative political stability, enabling noticeable socioeconomic progress. Bangladesh’s per capita income was $1,355 in 2016, nearly 40% higher than it was just three years earlier. In the same period, India’s per capita income rose by just 14%, and Pakistan’s 21%. In 2016, Bangladesh’s per capita income was 25% lower than India’s, a great leap forward since 2011, when it was around 87% lower. The country has also surpassed India and Pakistan in the human development index, recording higher life expectancy and lower infant mortality rates. Bangladesh is poised to be a middle income nation by 2024, provided it stays on its current trajectory of socioeconomic development.
Hasina’s political rivals, however, are seeking to focus beyond economic figures and development indices. Under Hasina, Bangladesh has become increasingly authoritarian. In some aspects, it is a de facto one-party state, where the ruling party has usurped even the basic constitutional rights of its political opponents as well as ordinary citizens.
As Shafquat Rabbee, a Bangladeshi commentator based in the United States, pointed out, the Awami League has “penetrated all layers of key state organs by appointing personnel favourable to the party’s agenda”.
Moreover, the country’s “lopsided” economic development has mostly “emboldened the ruling elite, leaving the vast majority of the population without any apparent benefit”.
This view is shared by Chowdhury, who noted that the ruling party’s urban social base has shrunk. “It is closer to the wealthy class,” he said. “The rise of the rich as political players has meant the decline of the middle class and the poor in the party’s decision-making layer.”
In particular, the ruling party has paid little attention to the urban middle class, its traditional supporters. “It is true they hold the least power now,” Chowdhury said of this segment of the population. “And without them, the party might swing to the extreme. It is the mediating segment which keeps the party’s many forces closer.”
Faisal Mahmud is a journalist in Dhaka.